(RNS) — For 11 hours this past Shabbat, the Jews of America and the world held their collective breath. We were waiting to see how the hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, would play out. We were reliving the prayer from the Days of Awe: “Who shall live, and who shall die?”
Only one person died — the gunman himself. The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, emerged as a true hero.
First, for embodying the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger. He had initially allowed the gunman to enter the synagogue, thinking him in need.
Second, the equally Jewish value of resistance. When he realized the situation was getting desperate, he threw a chair at the gunman, which allowed the hostages to escape.
During that time of anguish for the American Jewish community, what did American Jews hear?
In the words of Paul Simon, the sounds of silence.
Based on the reports of many of my rabbinical colleagues, the first rendition of silence was from our non-Jewish interfaith partners.
Yes, of course — there were many exceptions. The interfaith community in Colleyville itself was present and supportive, largely due to Cytron-Walker’s work at building bridges.
How redemptive — that many of those exceptions to the rule of silence came as heartfelt, courageous statements from our Muslim friends.
The most courageous statements came from Imam Abdullah Antepli, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.
I am proud to call Abdullah my friend (we often refer to each other as “brother”). He describes himself as a “recovering antisemite,” who had once imbibed anti-Jewish attitudes in his native Turkey.
No longer. In a series of Twitter posts, Abdullah called many Muslims to account for their promotion of antisemitism. “Houston, we have a problem!” he wrote.
But, as many of my colleagues will report, our Christian friends were largely, and painfully, silent.
I asked a cherished Christian colleague, and he reminded me that many Christians spoke out after the massacre at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
“There is a time for everything,” wrote Ecclesiastes. “There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” The history of Christian silence is not a novelty. The Holocaust, the pogroms, Rwanda … re-read Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll, and you will get it. We Christians know about our silence, and we should claim that.
But, there had been challenges to this long-standing silence — from brave Christian thinkers like Franklin Littell, A. Roy Eckardt, Alice Eckardt and Edward Flannery.
My colleague put it this way, regarding the silence of many clergy during the harrowing hours of Colleyville: “This was a sin of omission on our part.”
But, there was another sound of silence, and that was from Hollywood’s Jewish Aleph Listers.
- Jason Alexander
- Judd Apatow
- Mayim Bialik
- Larry David
- Michael Douglas
- Gal Gadot
- Dustin Hoffman
- Scarlett Johansson
- Marlee Matlin
- Mandy Patinkin
- Natalie Portman
- Seth Rogen
- Adam Sandler
- Jerry Seinfeld
- Steven Spielberg
- Barbra Streisand
- Howard Stern
- Ben Stiller
That would be the short list.
I know what you are saying. As my Christian colleague said: “This was a hostage crisis. Like ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ (My quip: more like God Day Afternoon.) We were all frozen in the moment.”
Those celebrities must have been frozen in the moment, as well, you are saying.
Perhaps. Perhaps, as well, I should not micromanage how various Jews manifest their Jewishness. That includes Jewish celebrities — who range from proudly affirmative, even observant, to relatively noninvolved.
But, still — could someone have spoken out? Could someone have called for a peaceful resolution; comfort for the terrified hostages; encouragement to their families?
What do we need?
Come back with me to 1943. A sizable percentage of Europe’s Jews have already perished. In response to the world’s (and America’s) silence in the face of unremitting evil, Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch produced a dramatic pageant at Madison Square Garden.
Its purpose: to raise public awareness about the plight of European Jewry.
Its title: “We Will Never Die.”
Who was involved? About as A list as you could have gotten at that time.
The pageant was written by Ben Hecht. The music was composed by Kurt Weill. It was staged by Moss Hart. Its stars included Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith.
When the pageant was performed on March 9, 1943, 40,000 people filled the seats — thanks to newspaper advertisements provided gratis by the Hearst Corp.
“We Will Never Die” went on the road, with performances in Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast across the nation on NBC radio. The Washington audience contained senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Notice a few elements of this story from the annals of American popular culture.
First, the venues, which were huge.
Second, the artistic prestige of the pageant’s creators and participants. These were first-tier cultural personalities.
Third, while there were certainly Jews involved in the presentation, consider the gentile performers who were also involved — Bellamy, Sinatra and Meredith.
It is time for another, radically updated production — or an imitation, via Facebook or other online outlets, given COVID-19 — of “We Will Never Die.”
David Baddiel put it this way: “Jews Don’t Count.”
Yes, we do.
The silence is killing us.